To be honest, as a child I enjoyed Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland. It was effectively the first anime movie I watched as a kid, which would soon be followed up by the horrific cluster of a trilogy that was known as Digimon: The Movie. It’s hard to believe a movie like this is already 31 years old, yet to this day remains largely unknown by most members of the anime community. With that in mind, I decided to take a look back at this movie to see how much it holds up after all these years of not watching it. Just a note too: unlike other anime films which I watched in Japanese with subs, for this one I reviewed the English version of it, as that was the one that I am most familiar with.
LITTLE NEMO’S ADVENTURES IN SLUMBERLAND
Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland derives its origins from an American comic strip written by Windsor McCay, which told the story of a boy named Nemo and the antics he undergoes in his dreams. The original comic series ran from 1905 – 1914, and was briefly revived for another two years in the years of 1924 – 1926. So the idea of making a movie based off an 80-year old comic character which hadn’t seen publication since then, was a pretty ambitious task that Yutaka Fujioka, the film’s director, was more than willing to take up. And boy, would it ever be one heck of a ride. Remember when you were in elementary school and you would clash with your group mates over how to delegate what to do for the class project? Trust me, those were nothing like what this movie had to go through. When I first learned about the history behind this movie’s conception and its release, it was pretty shocking, to say the least.
Production on this movie was a trainwreck from the moment it started in 1983; when you take a look at the list of individuals who were involved in it, these ranged from the acclaimed Star Wars director George Lucas, Home Alone director Chris Columbus (not to be confused by the Italian navigator of the same name), and even Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame, who at that time worked as an animator at the studio who was producing this film, Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS). So, technically speaking this is a Hayao Miyazaki film; one that he is on record for saying that he personally did not enjoy working on. Because of this, the movie’s development took six years before it was finally hacked together, and subsequently released to Japanese audiences in July 1989, and finally to America a mere 3 years and a month later; regardless, the movie sucked arse at the box office and was quickly shelved following its theatrical run.
To be fair though, it could have been worse. At least they were able to ship something decent within 6 years’ time. It wasn’t something like hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who are still trying to figure out how to win a playoff series 16 years after they last did it!
Nemo is a young boy who lives in New York City during the presidency of William Howard Taft, accompanied by his best friend: a flying squirrel named Icarus. One night, he is approached by Professor Genius, a servant of King Morpheus of the dream-like nation of Slumberland, to become designated as Crown Prince of said nation as well as a playmate to Princess Camille, the king’s daughter. Upon arriving in Slumberland, he finds himself repulsed at the thought of having to befriend a girl (to be fair, many of us were like that as children), but warms up to her after the latter introduces him to the surroundings of Slumberland. In addition to his dilly-dallying in the land, he also meets King Morpheus by accident when he stumbles upon his giant train set, and goes along for a ride with him on it. Formal introductions aside, the monarch gives Nemo a special key for which he is to safeguard with his life and reputation, giving him specific instructions to not open a door with its symbol inscribed on it.
Things begin to run amok when Flip, a truant clown and #1 on Slumberland’s Most Wanted Persons list, invites Nemo to spread chaos across Slumberland, culminating with him inducing the latter to commit the crime of opening said door which King Morpheus told him to avoid. All this leads to Nemo unleashing the evil forces of the Nightmare King who in turn abduct King Morpheus just moments after Nemo’s coronation as Prince of Slumberland, and the bestowal of the Royal Scepter unto him. This spurs him, Flip, Princess Camille and Professor Genius to race towards Nightmareland to rescue their leader. Although their roster eventually includes a pack of friendly, shapeshifting goblins named the Boomps (who should get a spinoff show someday, in the opinion of this writer), all but Nemo and them are kidnapped and taken as the Nightmare King’s castle. This is the part where it gets good. Like, real good.
Nemo and the Boomps reach the Nightmare King’s castle and take him on with a battle. Nemo uses the Royal Scepter to vanquish the nightmare King, destroying him and freeing his comrades and King Morpheus from his clutches in a climactic final showdown. After completing his mission and hooking up with Princess Camille, Nemo eventually returns to New York City, and goes to the circus with his family.
WHAT I LIKED
- The finale of this movie was unequivocally my favorite part of this film, and adequately made up for the lackluster first half of the movie as well as the trip to Nightmareland. The visuals, the Nightmare King ominous presence, and the depiction of Nemo and the Boomps avoiding his capture were excellently detailed, and the execution of his timely demise was awesome and so satisfying to watch. Were it not for the rest of the story being whack I think the movie would have been received better than it actually did.
- The version I saw as a kid did not include scenes such as when Nemo “sleepwalked” his way to obtain his mother’s pie, or the Nightmare King swallowing up his minions after a failed attempt to ambush Nemo’s rescue. Even though the former part was not a good addition to the movie, it was still pretty cool to see these “deleted scenes” for the first time in my life.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- The summary I wrote above is very sanitized, so don’t let it trick you to thinking that the film’s plot is pretty straightforward; because it’s not. Occasionally, it shows Nemo being in the middle of his adventures in Slumberland, and at some point he wakes up in his bed, thinks it was a dream, and then gets thrown back into it by an act of God. It was like watching three different stories being put together by three different teams with no consultation with each other, and from my previous experience in software development, that’s pretty bad.
- Some parts of the film were quite pointless inclusions; the beginning dream with Nemo being chased by a killer train, to the subplot involving pie, Flip and most especially, the whole thing where he has to go through royal schooling, were bits that could have been removed, and it wouldn’t impact the story. Why waste energy to showcase these parts if they’re not for the story’s overall benefit?
- The romance between Nemo and Princess Camille, which was canonized at the film’s end, sucked; even more than Chihiro and Haku’s in Spirited Away. Nowhere in the film did we see any growth between them in their relationship, and all of a sudden the film throws us with the “Oh, they kissed, yay” treatment. I’ve written enough Navem Eos articles to tell you that a romance with no context is bad, and this one’s an example of it. Cute? Well, yeah, I’ll concede that though.
- Icarus’ dialogue was really hard to understand. Couldn’t they have, I don’t know, put some subtitles to him. The only lines I was able to hear from him were at the end, when he said “Circus? Oh boy!”. And as far as I can gather, this character isn’t meant to be another Chewbacca clone, for crying out loud.
One of the main concerns that George Lucas presented when he was approached to work on the film was the lack of character development present in the film – and is he ever so right. Nemo’s personality is about as bland as a brick wall, and throughout the story he manages to succeed in his trials merely through luck. His initial arrival to Slumberland, where he is greeted with god-like applause and celebration, paralleled that of Timmy from The Secret Of NIMH 2: Timmy To The Rescue; both characters are automatically treated as persons of great importance without any rhyme or reason, and no explanation is given to such – viewers are just asked to accept it and move on. When the film starts and ends, he’s practically the same character; maybe he’ll learn to keep his promises, but that’s about it. The same can be practically said about the other characters, both major and minor; Professor Genius, Princess Camille, Flip, King Morpheus, the Nightmare King… you name it, they didn’t have much going for them in this field.
That’s not to say there were a shortage of fun characters though. For one thing, I did genuinely enjoy watching Icarus, Nemo’s pet flying squirrel, roam around the story – even if the gibberish he said was the only thing he could bring about; as well as the jovial Boomps quintet we are treated to in the foray to Nightmareland. The Nightmare King too was a legitimately terrifying villain with a truly nightmarish design, whose intimidating demeanor and his powerful presence matches the word “final boss”. Those are the only positive character aspects that I could find from this film.
Little Nemo’s music consisted of random vocal tracks which were sporadically spread across the movie, occasionally accompanying specific scenes. For starters, there’s the dream-like tunes of intro song and Slumberland by Melissa Manchester, which can be found at the beginning and when Nemo returns to New York respectively. Other examples included Fun And Laughter (which played when Nemo and Princess Camille were having fun across Slumberland), Etiquette (from when Nemo went to school to figure out how to become a prince), and the theme song of the Boomps. With the exception of the last song, I dreaded having to listen to these musical numbers – they just felt so out of place and in retrospect they didn’t even have any discernable impact to the story’s development. But if there’s one piece that stands out, it’s this one from the party following Nemo’s coronation; the reason being that the chatter that plays when Professor Genius and King Morpheus dance to it sounded like a recording of two guys high on crack singing along to it. Even with the instrumentals alone I can already hear their incoherent chatter in my head. When it comes to the instrumental background music though, it was rather tolerable if you’re into whimsical and adventurous music types.
Overall, the music wasn’t all that sterling, but it did have some salvageable parts to it. It’s just that the salvageable parts weren’t able to carry the full weight of the film.
15 years have passed since I last watched it, and suffice to say, Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland failed to carry the torch of nostalgic goodness that I once had for it in my youth. Although the animation wasn’t too bad and very Ghibli-like at times, not to mention as well, the battle between Nemo and the Nightmare King being the highlight of the film, the incoherent, zig-zaggy plotline streamlining it was enough to ruin the experience. Instead of watching the film with the same, curious attention that I once had for it, I found myself singing along to Snoop Dogg’s “Smoke Weed Everyday” remix just to accompany the story’s ridiculous progression. You know what? They shouldn’t have called it Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland. I think Little Nemo’s Extravagant Acid Trip instead would have been a better name; because the only way you can watch this film and give it a 10/10 is if you were really intoxicated, or high on acid throughout the film’s 95-minute duration. Please don’t try that at home.